A survey of Austrian veterinarians reveals that most will reject a request to euthanize a horse on the grounds of convenience.
Svenja Springer, Florien Jenner, Alexander Tichy and Herwig Grimm have reported in the journal Animals on their findings of a survey of Austrian equine veterinarians’ attitudes to euthanasia.
The four, from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, noted that only a few scientific papers have been published which concentrate on the horse owner’s perspective on euthanasia in equine practice.
“Data findings on veterinarians’ attitudes toward euthanasia in equine medicine are even scarcer,” they observed.
The researchers said the treatment of horses was often associated with significant costs which owners may be unwilling or unable to pay.
“This means that the issue of euthanasia performed for financial reasons where curative or palliative therapies are available is of particular interest in equine practice.”
In some situations, owners might refuse to go ahead with medically indicated euthanasia of a horse due to their strong emotional bonds to the horse – they cannot bear to part from it.
Thus, convenience euthanasia, the over-treatment of suffering animals and the influence of financial considerations on treatment decisions often create ethical dilemmas in veterinary practice.
The researchers carried out an anonymous questionnaire-based survey of Austrian equine vets for their study. They sought to identify factors which may influence decisions on the ending of a horse’s life.
In total, 64 vets completed the 56-question questionnaire – a response rate of 23.4%. The survey included a series of case scenarios put to the vets.
The study showed that veterinarians are aware of owners’ emotional bonds with their horses and financial background. However, requests for convenience euthanasia are typically rejected.
The attitudes of veterinarians were shown to be largely shared, although there were some differences around gender and working experience.
“Veterinarians consider not only medical but also social and economic factors, to be of great importance,” the study team reported.
“The emotional bond between the owner and the horse has an especially marked impact on the decision-making processes.”
They continued: “The survey respondents indicated that they would not continue to try to convince the owner of a severely laminitic mare of the necessity to euthanize once she/he had refused euthanasia despite in-depth explanations.
“The most likely interpretation of this result is that veterinarians consider close emotional bonds to be of high importance and may accept that the animal will continue to suffer from its disease, at least to a certain extent, if the owner cannot part from the horse.”
When equine patients are suffering from incurable diseases and owners decide against medically indicated euthanasia, conflicting responsibilities create an ethical dilemma and role conflict for the treating veterinarian.
“As a possible solution, veterinarians can strengthen their advisory position and inform the owner in greater detail about the animal’s suffering, explaining the reasons why euthanasia is the best possible solution.”
Austrian veterinarians also have the option of notifying the official veterinarian, recruited by the government to perform authorized duties on its behalf, in cases where the condition of the animal is no longer bearable for animal welfare reasons.
In the case of neglected horses, most veterinarians in the survey indicated they would tell the official veterinarian.
Male veterinarians were more likely to consider that carefully considered euthanasia is a positive part of their practice as veterinarians.
“Although veterinarians know they have limited influence on owners’ decisions, they agreed that it would be very difficult for them to euthanize against their own convictions.
“Owner-related statements indicating, for example, the possibility that the owner will neglect the horse or that the veterinarian will lose the client did not seem to influence veterinarians’ decisions on euthanasia. Indeed, they were associated with a strong refusal to euthanize the patient in the absence of a medical indication.”
Four out of five convenience euthanasia requests resulted in a strong refusal to euthanize the horse despite the external pressure applied by the owner.
“Neither changed living circumstances, the last will of the owner, nor financial reasons led to an agreement to euthanize the horse.” (The Austrian Animal Welfare Act 2004 makes it illegal to kill an animal without justification.)
“In addition, it is clear that alternative solutions, such as finding a new home for the animal or offering payment in installments, can offer alternative options.
“However, it needs to be borne in mind that in equine medicine owners are more often confronted with high therapy costs and that finding a new home for a horse is a much greater challenge than finding the same for a dog or cat.”
The differing financial backgrounds of owners demand high flexibility in the planning and provision of medical services, the researchers said.
“With the increasing number of cost-intensive diagnostic and therapeutic options, financial considerations are becoming more prominent in today’s veterinary practice, and in both equine and small animal practice they cannot be uncoupled from the euthanasia issue.”
“We conclude that veterinarians are aware of the multiple factors that influence their decision-making and gave indications as to the weight of animal and owner-related factors in the handling of euthanasia in equine practice,” the authors wrote.
“They are aware of owners’ emotional bonds with their horses and financial background, and they reject requests for convenience euthanasia.
“Consideration of the animal’s prognosis, age, and previous life can make it easier for veterinarians to deal with euthanasia. Nevertheless, veterinarians are mindful of the importance of their informative and advisory role, which underlines the idea of shared decision-making processes in cases of euthanasia.”
Austrian Veterinarians’ Attitudes to Euthanasia in Equine Practice
Svenja Springer, Florien Jenner, Alexander Tichy and Herwig Grimm.
Animals 2019, 9(2), 44; doi:10.3390/ani9020044